If Twitter forgets your timeline preference, and you're using Safari, this is why

Privacy through amnesia not ideal for remembering user choice


Apple's Intelligent Tracking Protection (ITP) in Safari has implemented privacy through forgetfulness, and the result is that users of Twitter may have to remind Safari of their preferences.

Apple's privacy technology has been designed to block third-party cookies in its Safari browser. But according to software developer Jeff Johnson, it keeps such a tight lid on browser-based storage that if the user hasn't visited Twitter for a week, ITP will delete user set preferences.

So instead of seeing "Latest Tweets" – a chronological timeline – Safari users returning to Twitter after seven days can expect to see Twitter's algorithmically curated tweets under its "Home" setting.

Twitter on its own had hoped to make that the default for everyone. The social network earlier this year briefly removed an option to view tweets chronologically by default, forcing users to view its suggested tweets. Algorithmic social media feeds are designed to promote outrage, sorry, engagement, which tends to lead to greater usage and improved advertising revenue.

However, Twitter's effort to shift users over to its curated feed was poorly received. Dissatisfaction with the change led to an outcry and in March the biz reversed course and restored the ability for users to choose to see the most timely tweets first.

Safari has complicated that choice by electing to have a short memory for the sake of privacy. As a result Apple's browser will forget users' Twitter preferences in time if not reminded of them with sufficient frequency.

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"If you change your timeline with the 'sparkly' icon at the top of https://twitter.com/home, the change will be reflected in [the browser's] database," explains Johnson, who runs Underpass App Company, in a blog post. "Your Twitter display settings such as font size and color scheme are also stored in the database."

Safari, he says, stores its settings for Twitter timeline viewing preferences in an IndexedDB database. But ITP's storage policy sets a seven-day cap on all writable storage. That prevents cookies from lingering too long, but isn't ideal when it comes to stored preferences.

"ITP caps the expiry of all cookies created in JavaScript to seven days and deletes all other script-writeable storage after seven days of no user interaction with the website," explains Johnson, who said he expects the issue is likely to affect Safari users who visit other websites that store data similarly.

Apple WebKit security and privacy engineer John Wilander has been overseeing an effort to develop the IsLoggedIn API, which aims to link storage to authentication state in a way that might address ITP impermanence but for now the API remains incomplete.

There is a way to disable Safari's behavior, says Johnson. On macOS, this involves checking the "Show Develop menu in menu bar" checkbox in Safari's Preferences menu and then selecting the "Disable Removal of Non-Cookie Data After 7 Days of No User Interaction (ITP)" via the Develop menu's Experimental Features selection. On iOS, the menu path is Settings->Safari>Advanced->Experimental Features. ®


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